Leafs try to block out the noise facing elimination: 'We don't listen to you guys'
SUNRISE, Fla. — Mitch Marner has repeatedly pointed out how little attention he pays to anything that doesn't emanate from inside the Maple Leafs' orbit.
The winger insists he stays off social media and doesn't read or watch what's being written or said.
With the pressure mounting, the fan base in a hockey-mad city panicking, and his team facing elimination down 3-0 in their second-round playoff series with the Florida Panthers, that tune hasn't changed.
"We don't care what you (reporters) say," Toronto's under-fire and underperforming star said sharply Tuesday following the team's practice at FLA Live Arena. "We don't listen to you guys outside of this locker room.
"We're just focused on ourselves and this group in here."
That group has a near-impossible challenge ahead.
After overcoming a painful post-season past that included a number of crushing disappointments, including six straight series defeats, the Leafs got a gorilla off their collective back when they downed the Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening round to advance for the first time since 2004.
A lot has happened — and not happened — in the 10 days since.
The Panthers hold a surprising and commanding 3-0 lead against Toronto in the teams' best-of-seven matchup, and can send the Leafs packing with a Game 4 victory Wednesday.
Florida has done a lot of good things and won some tight contests, but Toronto has done itself no favours.
There have been crucial mistakes at key times, ones the Leafs simply didn't make against Tampa.
The biggest issue, however, is how the offence has dried up.
Marner, Auston Matthews, John Tavares and William Nylander — the team's so-called "Core Four" of high-paid talent — has failed to find the mark against the Panthers after carrying a heavy load last round.
Matthews hasn't scored in this series, while Marner and Nylander haven't found the back of the net in seven straight games. Tavares has one goal — his Game 6 overtime clincher versus the Lightning — over the same span.
"We're the leaders," Marner said. "We want to be the ones to step our foot forward.
"We all know that we've got to be a lot better."
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said the focus on the top end of his lineup's lack of production against Florida is one thing, but there's a lot more that's gone into Toronto's predicament.
"Those guys carried us offensively through the Tampa series and came through at clutch times, scored us big goals (in) big moments," he said. "We're here playing largely on the backs of how they came through for us.
"They'll come through for us again, but our team needs to take care of this situation right now."
Florida won Game 1 by a 4-2 margin before picking up consecutive 3-2 victories, including Sunday's OT decision, to put a stranglehold on an Original Six franchise that will turn to rookie goaltender Joseph Woll with its season on the line after Ilya Samsonov suffered an upper-body injury in Game 3.
"Playoffs are hard," Nylander said. "It's the small little plays that can make a huge difference in the series ... that's been a little bit of (the) case this series.
"As I think it was last series, as well."
Things need to change for the Leafs — and fast — for a team that saw at least one of Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Nylander score in 75 of Toronto's 82 regular-season games.
"We want to step up," Matthews said. "Lead by example."
Going back to the end of the Tampa showdown, Toronto has scored just 10 times over the last five games — a dry spell not seen since 2016-17 when Mike Babcock was in his second year behind the bench, and Matthews, Marner and Nylander were rookies.
Tavares played another season with the New York Islanders before signing on July 2018 with the Leafs, who would host a potential Game 5 on Friday.
"Just go out there and play hockey," Matthews said when asked how he handles pressure. "That's what we've been doing our whole life. Can't really focus too much on the outside noise — what you guys are saying, what everybody's saying. It doesn't really matter."
"It'll be fun," Nylander added of Wednesday's must-win. "That's when you gotta play your best."
The Panthers, meanwhile, are playing free as they look to extend a franchise-record playoff winning streak to seven games after coming back from 3-1 down in the first round to stun the Presidents' Trophy-winning Boston Bruins.
"There's no pressure on us," Florida winger Matthew Tkachuk said. "Why play if you can't enjoy it?"
There isn't a lot of enjoyment down the hall as Toronto desperately attempts to take the first step in becoming just the fifth team in NHL history to come back from a 3-0 deficit.
"Starts with one game," Matthews said. "Starts with our attitude, our mindset. It's not about trying to go and win the series right now."
Keefe said with just a single date currently remaining on Toronto's schedule — and the team's hopes on life support — the message to the entire group is clear.
Not just the big guns currently shooting blanks.
"Everybody has to play their role and give us everything," he said. "Win one game, bring this thing back to Toronto, and give us more time for all these other things to come together.
"You gotta win one game."
This report from The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press